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The Ultimate Guide to Physics Bowl

If you’ve taken advanced Physics courses and want to put your knowledge to the test, then the PhysicsBowl should be on your radar! If this interests you, you’re just in luck – the PhysiscBowl Contest is a great opportunity for high school students such as you to receive recognition for your skills and expertise in the field of physics. Every year, approximately 10,000 physics students take the exam, which makes it pretty prestigious, competitive, and well-known.

The ability to exhibit aptitude in physics is extremely helpful in college admissions and beyond, especially if you are aiming for anything STEM-related. For example, engineering draws many concepts from physics, and many universities require passing one or more physics courses in order to attain an engineering degree. Participating and solving complex problems in a contest like the PhysicsBowl will allow you to stand out from your peers early on. Additionally, if you are one of the winners of PhysicsBowl, that can make a solid addition to your resume as well!

If you want to learn more about the competition and how you can do well, this blog is for you! In the sections below, we’ve covered all there is to know about the competition, its eligibility criteria, prizes, important dates, and deadlines, as well as things you can keep in mind that can help you win PhysicsBowl!

What is the PhysicsBowl?

Organized by the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT), the PhysicsBowl is a competition for high school students. As the name suggests, the contents of the questions will be focused on physics, from conceptual physics to AP Physics B/C and even modern physics. It is not expected that students will learn and know all the topics on the exam.

Here’s a quick look into the competition’s past - PhysicsBowl began in the 1980s and was based on the popular American Chemical Society’s general chemistry test. At its outset, it was meant to be a tool for physics teachers to measure student performance. It only began to be administered on a national level in 1985 as the “Metrologic Exam,” until it was renamed to “PhysicsBowl” in 1990.

When is the PhysicsBowl? How can I register?

Unlike other exams, which may have only a limited selection of dates for the test to be administered, the PhysicsBowl offers a range of dates sometime in March and April. This is done so schools can have proper time to proctor the test around their scheduled Spring Break period (which often takes place in April). For 2023, the test dates were between March 22 and April 14.

Registering will have to be done through your school, so it’s recommended to ask your physics teacher to see if your school participates. Even if your school is not involved in the PhysicsBowl, testing is very inexpensive (just $5 per student for both the PDF and WebAssign format!) so you can keep that cost in mind while planning out participation costs and communicating the same with your parents or guardians.

Is the PhysicsBowl prestigious?

The short answer is: yes, the PhysicsBowl is one of the most well-known competitions in physics, and performing well on this test is an impressive addition to anyone’s college application. As we mentioned above, over 10,000 students participate each year, with a handful of students making it to the winner’s list. This competitiveness and high selectivity of the program is what makes it prestigious.

What is the structure of the exam?

The exam consists of 40 questions, all multiple choice, and test takers will have 45 minutes to answer as many as they can. The topics covered by the exam will typically be covered in the high school physics curriculum. The exam will be administered within one’s own school. However, if you’re home-schooled or your school does not compete, you can contact local schools, test prep centers, or universities to see if you can participate.

The level of their current course curriculum will determine the type of test a student will take. First-year physics students will be placed in Division 1, which may cover topics both from and outside the expected AP class. On the other hand, second-year (or higher) students in physics will compete in Division 2, which is designed to be tougher in both depth and breadth.

How does scoring work?

Across the two divisions, students will compete within one of 15 regions in the United States or within one of 4 regions in China. For schools participating in the team competition, their rank will be determined by the top 5 highest scorers in their school.

What do the winners of the PhysicsBowl receive as prizes?

Awards will be given to the top 2 scorers in each region & division, and also to the teams of the top 2 schools in each region & division. You can find statistics on past winners here. Annually, average scores tend to vary between 16 and 20. In 2022, the typical highest scores were between 34 and 38, although there were some exceptions.

Tips and resources to help you prepare for the PhysicsBowl

Now that you have a solid understanding of the PhysicsBowl and its format, it’s time to go into how you can spend some time preparing for the exam. Here are 7 tips that can help you perform well, and even win the competition!

1. Take a physics course, especially a rigorous one.

This is a no-brainer, but it cannot be understated how much a fundamental understanding of physics in your high school classes can be a big help. By taking a class on this topic, you’ll be listening to lectures, taking notes, handing in homework, testing regularly, and reaching out to the teacher for questions. While self-studying is a valuable asset, make sure to explore the resources you have available to you as a high school student, such as classes in your local school and an experienced physics teacher.

AP Physics 1 may be a great place to begin and its challenging content will lead well into the difficult questions on the PhysicsBowl. Moreover, the class teaches you the foundational principles of physics like Newtonian mechanics, work, energy, power, and more in an algebra-based environment, which are crucial concepts to learn.

2. Take past practice exams.

The best way to prepare for a test is to take practice ones, and fortunately, the AAPT releases past tests on their website here, along with the solutions.

What is the best way to take the exam? Easy – you should always recreate the testing environment as best as possible. Find a place where you’re unlikely to be disturbed, follow the guidelines (like bringing a non-programmable calculator), and set a timer for 45 minutes. If you become accustomed to the testing rules and expectations, you’ll easily become used to the real test.

3. Review and retake.

Taking the exams is only half of the equation. Once you finish, you definitely should review your answers by checking the solution sheet. Pay extra attention to where you made mistakes so you don’t repeat them in the future. Were there alternate solutions that could have helped you solve the problem faster?

A helpful method is to write these down in a separate notebook and update it over time; then, you could peruse through the notes and remind yourself of past errors so you wouldn’t forget them on the real test.

Finally, to solidify your understanding, retake the exam as many times as needed until you get the perfect score. Repetition is often needed for the mind to memorize key concepts, and similar questions may pop up on multiple tests. Overall, it’s good practice to completely conquer each practice exam you take.

4. Memorize the formulas.

While it may be a bore to directly memorize them, there’s no better way to retain the formulas in your head for quick recall when you need them. An equation sheet is provided for students, but it does not include all the possible formulas that may be on the test and you waste precious time looking back and forth between your answers and the exam sheet.

Similarly, knowing the constants may be helpful – although they may not need to be exact. For example, g = 10 m/s2 is perfectly acceptable (and encouraged!). The constants sheet provided will encompass the basic, but not all, constants that may be tested. However, the ones outside of the sheet may simply be understood relatively instead of absolutely – ie, you may not know the exact value for the resistivity of copper, but would resistivity be greater for copper or grass?

5. Start preparing early!

Already, you may have gotten the sense from these tips that learning physics, taking tests, and memorizing formulas is not something to be done the night before. To ensure the best results, sign up for a physics class when you’re ready or when your school allows you to do so, and self-study at least several months before the exam.

Everyone’s pace will be different, but if you have several months to prepare, you’ll be in top shape. Try to aim for taking and reviewing at least one test every week, and writing each of the formulas 2-3 times every 2 weeks. You can slow down or speed up as needed, especially if you’re busy trying to manage multiple commitments at once. For example, you can focus less on the PhysicsBowl when you have school and clubs, and then ramp up your studies during the summer or winter break.

6. Study with others, or ask for help and resources.

Studying alone can be difficult and unmotivating, so look to form study groups with your peers who are also interested in the PhysicsBowl (or even just physics). Remember, there’s a team competition as well, so if the competitors in your school all do well, you’re more likely to succeed. You can also gain valuable insight and tips from your classmates who may show you a different approach to questions or explain a difficult concept to you in easier terms.

Moreover, your physics teacher will likely be available for any questions you may have and even guide you to resources that you may not have considered. Maybe he or she knows of a great website that is tailored for high school students and has the perfect book in his classroom that has a ton of practice questions. You never know unless you ask!

7. Rest up before the day of the exam, and make sure you follow the rules carefully.

Many students don’t understand the power of a good night’s sleep in elevating their performance, so it’s unrecommended that you cram the night before by staying up late. Doing so may lead to lower intellectual performance, like brain fog or decreased memory, along with higher emotional instability and stress. To prevent this, it’s simply better to turn off the lights and get to bed at a reasonable time to wake up early, wash up, and eat a healthy breakfast. Your body will thank you!

In addition, make sure you have everything that you need for the exam. Don’t assume that everything will be handed to you and that you are following proper guidelines. You don’t want to spend months preparing, only to realize at the last second that your calculator wasn’t approved,

Finally, during the test itself, employ good test-taking habits like staying calm, skipping hard or time-consuming questions to come back to them later, reviewing your answer sheet to see if you filled in the correct bubbles, and confirming your final answers. Because 45 minutes is not a lot of time, distribute the allotted time wisely by solving as many questions as you can and spending the last few minutes reviewing your materials. Some scores were not properly analyzed or credited because students had filled them out improperly – you don’t want that to be you.

Final Thoughts

No matter what you get on the exam, the time and effort you put into studying for the exam will pay off. Whether it’s higher test scores in your high school and college courses or a fun experience with your peers, you may receive an external benefit, even if it’s not an award! If you have more time in your high school career, you can always take it once more and challenge yourself again, so don’t give up and do your best!

One other option – Lumiere Research Scholar Program

If you are interested in doing university-level research in physics, then you could also consider applying to the Lumiere Research Scholar Program, a selective online high school program for students founded with researchers at Harvard and Oxford. Last year, we had over 2100 students apply for 500 spots in the program! You can find the application form here.

Lydia is currently a junior at Harvard University, studying Molecular and Cellular Biology. In high school, she was the captain of her high school’s Academic Decathlon team and attended the Governor's School of Engineering and Technology. In her spare time, she likes to create digital art while listening to music.

Image Source: AAPT logo



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